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A Walk In the Woods
by Lee Blessing
Directed by Renee Sevier-Monsey
West End Players Guild
September 30, 2017

Tom Moore, Tim Naegelin
Photo by John Lamb
West End Players Guild

West End Players Guild is starting their 2017-2018 season with Lee Blessing’s 1988 A Walk In The Woods, a celebrated Pulitzer Prize nominee that’s very much of its era when looking at it today. At WEPG, it comes across as an earnest, if subdued, look at a particular time and place in world history.

Probably the most striking thing about this particular production is its set, designed by Jacob Winslow, who also designed the excellent lighting. Here, the basement of Union Avenue Christian Church has been transformed into a wooded area somewhere in Geneva, Switzerland, with real mulch, logs, leaves and branches spread around to achieve an authentic effect. A simple wooden bench is the only furniture, and the audience is seated in sections surrounding the performance area on three sides. It’s an effective staging conceit, basically bringing the audience into the woods with the play’s characters, who are two arms negotiators. The Soviet Andrey Bottnvinnik (Tom Moore) is older, avuncular, personable but wearied by years in this job. The American John Honeyman (Tim Naegelin) is new on the job, and he’s more of the by-the-book kind of guy, but also full of idealism and hope that a real agreement on nuclear arms reduction can be achieved. Over the course of the play, the two talk and develop a relationship, and that is essentially the story. The personalities of the characters, and their back-and-forth discussion on matters as serious as world peace and as seemingly mundane as country music, are the centerpiece to this story which seems to depend a lot on archetypes as much as specific characters, although those archetypes are examined and challenged as well. At first it appears that we’re seeing the “older, wiser vs. the young upstart” but over the course of the show we see that there’s more to these characters than the initial impressions.

Although this play was timely when it was first written, now it plays as a Cold War time capsule of sorts, although it still has its moments of relevance to today’s issues, and the general idea of diplomacy as a difficult but essential pursuit. Blessing’s script is insightful at times, but it’s also deliberate sometimes to the point of being a little too deliberate. This strikes me as the type of play that particularly benefits from strong casting. All plays benefit from good performances, but here that seems most essential. The performances here are strong, although not as dynamic as they possibly could be. Moore is particularly engaging as the charming but deceptively cynical Bottvinnik. His Russian accent is convincing, as well. Naegelin as Honeyman is also convincing, and both actors display convincing chemistry as their relationship builds and grows throughout the play.

For the most part, A Walk In the Woods is a compelling character study and a window into a time in world history that is still in living memory for many in the audience. Its look at the process of diplomacy and the struggle for communication in the midst of cynicism is one that is still relevant today, as well. It’s an intriguing opening for WEPG’s season.

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The 2017 St. Lou Fringe Festival is over now, and the biggest regret I have regarding it is that I didn’t see more shows. It’s a great festival celebrating all kinds of performing arts, especially theatre in the more “edgy” or experimental vein. The four shows I saw this year reflected the Fringe’s attitude in different ways. From complex experimental pieces, to outrageous comedy, to challenging drama, the best of what theatre can be is there at the Fringe.

I missed last year’s Festival, so it’s been a little while since I was able to soak up the Fringe atmosphere, and a few things have changed since the last time I attended the festival. Generally, the festival seems more streamlined and polished. Gone are Fringe badges and playing cards for tickets, and the area of the festival isn’t as spread out as it used to be, focusing more on a few blocks of Grand Boulevard in Grand Center. Also, the newly renovated Grandel Theatre makes an ideal venue for the festival’s headline shows. It’s still the Fringe with all its quirkiness and variety, but it’s also showing signs of having matured somewhat. The Festival is even more cementing itself as a fixture in the St. Louis performing arts scene.

Here are brief reviews of the four shows I saw:

Snow White

Directed and Adapted by Lucy Cashion
Equally Represented Arts

Julia Crump, Will Bonfiglio (right) and cast
Photo by Meredith LaBounty
ERA

This year’s local headline act was this new production from the innovative ERA and its fearless leader, director and adaptor Lucy Cashion, who has given audiences a Snow White like they have never seen before. Like ERA’s versions of Shakespeare and other classical works, this isn’t a straightforward telling of the story. In fact, its non-linear nature is highlighted in an “instruction sheet” handed to audience members before the show. There’s a lot going on here, with various versions of the fairy tale being mixed with pop culture influences, cultural criticism, philosophy, and psychology, exploring issues of identity, sexuality, race, authority, and more. There are a lot of concepts thrown together here, and it can be a challenge to sort through everything, but it’s definitely a worthwhile and fascinating exercise. It’s one of those shows that I really wish I could see more than once.

There are some echoes of the Disney Snow White here, but there’s a lot more as well, and the characters are here but they’re different. Here, the story is narrated by Snow White’s imperious, German-accented biological mother (a terrific Katy Keating), and acted out on a simple, abstract set designed by Cashion and comprised mostly of various movable pieces of furniture and surmounted by a giant video screen. The use of music and video, composed and designed by Joe Taylor, is impressive and clever, with the magic mirror becoming a unique character called Hogo DeBergerac, voiced by Randy Brachman but being “spoken” through the mouths of the characters themselves on the giant video screen. The characters take turns addressing the mirror, and Jane (Maggie Conroy), the haughty “Wicked Stepmother” figure, is obsessed with it, and also to a different degree with Snow White (Julia Crump). Here, Snow White is a pampered and somewhat bossy princess who lives with seven men—Bill (Mitch Eagles), Clem (Alex Fyles), Edward (Anthony Kramer), Henry (Carl Overly, Jr.), Kevin (Reginald Pierre), Hubert (Gabe Taylor), and Dan (Pete Winfrey).  The men, outfitted in coveralls with name tags, have their own issues to sort out, not just in relation to Snow White but toward one another and within themselves. There’s also Paul (Will Bonfiglio), the prince figure, who likes to take baths with his typewriter, blows bubbles, joins a monastery for a time, and undertakes his own personal quest for purpose, that may or may not involve Snow White in some way or another. If there’s a lot of vague language here, that’s fitting, because this is a play about concepts as much as it is about characters. There are some striking visual moments, aided by Cashion’s striking design and Marcy Wiegert’s stylish, whimsical costumes, as well as by Taylor’s music. There are moments of bursting into song, as well.

If this sounds odd, it’s because it is. It’s ERA, and nothing is conventional. The casting is excellent across the board, with excellent moments for all of the characters, and there are a lot of ideas even if the story isn’t always exactly coherent. I hope ERA stages this again elsewhere, because I would like to see it again. It’s new, it’s old, it’s different, and it challenges conventional thinking about a well-known story and characters. In short, it’s what Cashion and ERA do best.

On the Exhale

by Martin Zimmerman

Directed by Seth Gordon and Starring Elizabeth Ann Townsend

This short one-woman show is intense, poignant, and an excellent showcase for its star, Elizabeth Ann Townsend. It only runs about an hour, but there’s a lot of drama in that hour, told from the point of view of an unnamed English professor and single mother whose conception of life and the world around her is shaken by a school shooting. It’s a highly personal account even though the character isn’t given a name, and the echoes of the Sandy Hook tragedy are unmistakable. Told in a first-person narrative style, the structure of the play makes the character’s journey immediate and personal, as Townsend explores issues of family, grief, fear, and the problematic politics of guns.  It’s a tour-de-force performance by Townsend as a woman whose journey of grief takes her in places she never thought she would go.  This was a simply riveting production.

Liberals vs. Zombies vs. Conservatives

Written and performed by Dan Viggers, starring Sarah Porter, Matt Pentecost and Zak Farmer

This is a timely, satirical musical taking prominent issues from the day and combining them with music and zombies. I guess a zombie apocalypse is as good a premise as any to bring disparate characters together and force them to work out their conflicts. Here, composer and writer Viggers has crafted a simple, goofy story full of jokes and caricatures that has some tuneful songs and provides a lot of laughs. With jokes about everything from man buns to Fox News and more, it tells the story of two liberals, Lena (Porter) and Oliver (Pentecost), who are fleeing from the zombies and come across the homestead of a conservative, Trump-supporting loner, Ted (Farmer). Forced to confront their differences and figure out what to do about the crisis situation, the three end up learning more about one another than they had wished. All three performers give good performances, with great voices and comic timing, and most of the jokes are funny, although the twist ending is somewhat abrupt and the final “message” is a little simplistic. Still, it’s an entertaining show, and a good example of the kind of variety that Fringe has to offer.

Dead Gothics Society

produced by Alicen Moser

This show is just a whole lot of fun, especially for anyone with an interest in literature. Producer Alicen Moser, who also acts in the production, has brought together a team of performers and crew (including Jimmy Bernatowicz, Andre Estamian, Katie Schoenfeld, Hannah Grimm, Tori Thomas, Ryan Lawson-Maeske, and Ben Lewis) to play an intriguing game. Hosted by Satan in Purgatory, a collection of dead writers and poets including Lord Byron, Mary Shelley, Edgar Allen Poe, and others take turns acting out stories they’ve written that range from the simply bizarre to the downright creepy, with a lot of humor thrown in for good measure. The audience then votes on their two favorites, who then go head-to-head in a trivia contest with the winner receiving a ticket to go straight to Heaven, and the loser getting a ticket to Hell. It’s a smart, clever, funny, and irreverent production that’s a whole lot of fun to watch and participate in as an audience member. There are some fun running jokes and some great performances by all, with Lawson-Maeske as probably the MVP for his memorable turns as Byron and the Marquis de Sade. This is another excellent example of the kinds of shows a festival like Fringe showcases so well.

Overall, my Fringe 2017 experience was enlightening, energizing, and entertaining. I enjoyed the shows I saw this year, and I look forward to seeing more of what the Fringe brings next year.

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The Tennessee Williams Festival may be officially over, but there are still two plays running that you still have a chance to see. They’re both excellent productions of lesser-known plays by Williams, and they are well worth checking out. Here are my reviews:

Will Mr. Merriwether Return From Memphis?

By Tennessee Williams

Directed by Jef Awada

The Stockton House proved to be a popular and ideal venue for The St. Louis Rooming House Plays at last year’s festival.  Having the plays performed in a real historic house lent a lot of atmosphere to the production, creating an experience that almost seemed like time travel. The same effect is achieved in this year’s production of Will Mr. Merriwether Return From Memphis? In fact, it often seems like the house itself is a character in the play.

Unlike last year’s production here, the audience isn’t divided into groups. This is one play with a more linear structure, although it’s not too linear. Here, loneliness and the yearning for personal connection are on clear display. The story, set near the turn of the 20th Century, centers around a widowed mother, Louise (Julie Layton), who is still relatively young and has become obsessed with a young lodger with whom she had a brief relationship, the Mr. Merriwether of the title. He’s left for a new job in Memphis and hasn’t let Louise know if, or when, he will return. Louise is often at odds with her teenage daughter, Gloria (Molly McCaskill), whose choice of outfits and obvious delight in the interest of local boys bothers her mother. There’s also Louise’s neighbor, the older and also widowed Nora (Kelley Weber), whose interest in the supernatural coincides with Louise’s. The two frequently talk about summoning “apparitions”—ghosts of various figures from history, who tell them their own stories of sorrow and loneliness. While Louise and Nora conduct séances, attend French class, and miss their husbands and the frequently mentioned Mr. Merriwether, Gloria indulges in an encounter with a boy from her class, identified in the program as Romantically Handsome Youth (Jacob Flekier).

This play covers a lot of issues in its meandering story, focusing on the loneliness of its older characters and the romantic and sexual exploration of Gloria and her classmate, and Louise’s jealousy of her daughter’s youth and romantic exploits. Music figures into the story a great deal, as well, provided by Jack Wild as the banjo player who is occasionally mentioned by the characters, playing various songs including “La Vie En Rose” for Gloria and the Youth, whose encounter is acted out in the form of dance, as they travel throughout the house, often followed by a glaring, wistful Louise. Terry Meddows, Sophia Brown, and Bob Harvey also appear in a variety of roles, mostly in drag, with Meddows and Harvey playing various women and Brown playing mostly male characters, including the apparitions of painter Vincent Van Gogh and poet Arthur Rimbaud. Meddows is excellent as Gloria’s enthusiastic schoolteacher, among other characters; and Harvey makes an impression as the town’s strict librarian and others. Meddows, Brown, and Harvey are especially memorable as three Crones who are apparently supposed to be the Eumenides, or the Fates.

Layton, as Louise, gives an achingly authentic portrayal of a supremely lonely woman who longs not only for a real, personal connection, but also for her youth. Weber is equally strong as Nora, who is excited to meet the various apparitions she summons, but also reveals her own underlying loneliness. McCaskill exudes youthful energy as the curious, flirtatious Gloria, and Flekier is charming as her shy but captivated young beau. These two have strong chemistry in acting and in dancing.

The production values here are strong, fitting the play into the Stockton House with a great deal of style and atmosphere. Robin McGee’s costumes, Michael Sullivan’s lighting, Abby Schmidt’s wig design, and James Robey’s choreography all contribute to the sometimes wistful, sometimes whimsical tone of this play.  The setting works so well that it seems like the play was meant to be performed this way. It’s an experience that’s better seen than described, and a truly memorable production.

Will Mr. Merriwether Return From Memphis? is running at the Stockton House until May 21, 2017

Small Craft Warnings

by Tennessee Williams

Directed by Richard Corley

Photo by Peter Wochniak
Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis

As the famous theme song to the TV show Cheers states, “sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name”. Well, sometimes you do, and sometimes you don’t. In Tennessee Williams’ 1971 play Small Craft Warnings, we meet a disparate collection of characters who are at turns familiar with one another and alienated.  It’s a character study with characters who sometimes seem a little too broadly drawn, but they are fascinating all the same, and the cast is extremely strong.

Set in a seaside dive bar called “Monk’s”, the story doesn’t really have much of a plot. Monk (Peter Mayer) opens the bar and gradually, the regulars a few new faces drift in and tell their stories. There’s a little bit of character-based conflict, but mostly this is a character study, and another look at Williams’s common theme of loneliness.  The characters include the emotional, opinionated Leona (Elizabeth Townsend), who is especially upset this evening because it’s the anniversary of the death of her beloved brother, a violinist who died young. Leona’s at the end of her rope with her swaggering, bigoted boyfriend Bill (Eric Dean White), who spends most of the play bragging about how he doesn’t work, hitting on the fragile, erratic Violet (Magan Wiles), and insulting various people, including Leona’s late brother because he was gay. There’s also Doc, a doctor who has lost his medical license but who still practices medicine anyway, including going to deliver a baby at the nearby trailer park. Steve (Jared Sanz-Agero), a cook, is sort of dating Violet but isn’t sure what to do with her most of the time. Also arriving at the bar unexpectedly are Quentin (John Bratkowski), an extremely jaded former screenwriter, and Bobby (Spencer Milford), an optimistic, free-spirited young man who has been riding his bike from Iowa to Mexico, and who the much older Quentin has picked up for a tryst. Basically, the characters take turns sharing monologues about their lives, all reflecting degrees of loneliness and despair except for the still idealistic Bobby, who reminds Leona of her late brother. There are a few volatile interactions, especially involving Leona, Violet, Bill, and Doc, but there isn’t really much of a story here. It’s essentially a collection of monologues with the framework of an evening at the bar. We see the dependence and neediness in some of the relationships, as well as the yearning for purpose and connection.

Although there isn’t a lot of story here, this play is an excellent showcase for the first-rate cast that has been assembled here. Townsend is loud, brash, and moody as Leona, credibly navigating her up-and-down emotional shifts, sparring effectively with White, who does a great job playing against type as the self-absorbed, smarmy Bill. Jeremy Lawrence is appropriately melancholy as the affable but sad, alcoholic Doc. Wiles, as the unpredictable as desperately lonely Violet, is a real standout, bringing a great deal of sympathy to her role of an aimless young woman who will take a small bit of attention wherever she can find it, and her scenes with Mayer’s world-weary Monk are particularly memorable. There are also strong performances from Bratkowski as the dejected, emotionally numb Quentin, Sanz-Agero as the affable but exasperated Steve, and Milford as the young, effusively optimistic Bobby.

The bar is represented in vivid detail by means of Dunsi Dai’s meticulous set, and the early 70’s-era costumes by Robin McGee suit the characters well. There’s also terrific lighting from Michael Sullivan that helps set the mood and tone of the play, and excellent sound by Michael Perkins. The beach setting of the play is well-realized here in sight, sound, and overall atmosphere.

Small Craft Warnings is full of strong character moments, but it’s essentially a talking play—a collection of characters sharing their hopes, and mostly their disappointments, with the audience. It’s Williams, though, and it has its profound moments, excellently played by a superb cast. There’s one more weekend left to see it, and it’s a worth catching while there’s still time.,

Small Craft Warnings is running at The .Zack until May 14, 2017

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Love?Actually
Directed by Christina Rios
R-S Theatrics
September 1, 2016

Eileen Engel, Lindsay Gingrich Photo by Michael Young R-S Theatrics

Eileen Engel, Lindsay Gingrich
Photo by Michael Young
R-S Theatrics

R-S Theatrics starts out it new season at Westport Playhouse this year, tackling the subject of (possibly) unrequited love. Billed as “Love?Actually”, their latest show is really two one-act shows and a cabaret, featuring a talented cast of actors and singers. Everything is simply staged, but that helps to highlight the excellent performances.

The first part of the evening was an inventive cabaret segment called “Out of a Bowl”, titled as such because of its format. Audience members were brought on stage to pull slips of paper from a bowl, determining which performers would sing and in what order. There were two solos, two duets, and a group number, along with a hilarious sketch by Colleen Backer featuring a Mount Rushmore tour guide on her last day of work, and her ingenious way of getting revenge on her boss, who is also her ex-lover. The songs were a mixture of musical theatre and pop, well-performed by the excellent cast members, including Lindsay Gingrich with a hilarious rendition of “Gooch’s Song” from Mame, Kelvin Urday with an emotional rearrangement of “Mr. Brightside” by the Killers, and Omega Jones and Eileen Engel with a gloriously over-the-top performance of “The Song That Goes Like This” from Spamalot. Everyone is excellent here, and the selection of singers and songs is likely to change every performance, so the audience is in for a pleasant surprise.

Act 2 was a performance of Steven Serpa’s short opera “Thyrsis and Amaranth”, in which a pair of bridesmaids at a wedding sing about their feelings of love. Thyrsis (Lindsay Gingrich) and Amaranth (Eileen Engel) are close friends who grew up together. Thyrsis is clearly in love with Amaranth and allows herself to hope that her feelings are returned, as Amaranth sings of feelings for the initially unnamed object of her affections. As she agonizes over how to express her love, the bride, groom, wedding guests and workers pass by in the background, playing out their own silent little stories that serve as a backdrop to the main plot. Both lead performers sing superbly, and the real sense of affection is obvious and apparent between both characters. Gingrich is particularly affecting as the lovestruck, melancholy Thyrsis, and Engel is also convincing as the more cheerful Amaranth.

Next up in the evening’s performances is “21 Chump Street” a one-act musical by one of Broadway’s most talked-about composer-performers, Lin-Manuel Miranda.  The hip-hop and pop-based score is characteristic of Miranda’s style, and the subject matter is engaging and thought-provoking. Set in a Florida high school, the show starts out as a seemingly routine story of a promising young student, Justin (Kelvin Urday) developing a crush on a new student, Naomi (Natasha Toro). What Justin doesn’t know, however, is that “Naomi” is actually a 25-year-old undercover police officer who has been planted at the school to find and arrest drug dealers, and the unwitting, infatuated Justin is caught in her trap. This is an excellent, extremely provocative show, exploring various issues such as abuse of authority, teenage drug use and whether or not marijuana should even be illegal in the first place. All of the performers are excellent, especially Urday as the devoted Justin, Toro as the determined officer, and Sarajane Alverson as the narrator/teacher/interviewer. They are supported by a strong, energetic ensemble (Kevin J. Corpuz, Omega Jones, and Phil Leveling) as Justin’s classmates.  There’s a lot here in this very short piece–humor, drama, conflict, and controversy, and it’s performed with utmost excellence.

The acting and singing is well supported by the technical aspects, with effective set design by Keller Ryan, strong lighting by Nathan Schroeder, and well-suited costumes by Amy Harrison. The production fits well into the small space at the Westport Playhouse, as well. It’s an ideal showcase for R-S Theatrics’ talented ensemble, exploring the complexities and confusions of love that isn’t necessarily requited.

Natasha Toro, Kelvin Urday Photo by Michael Young R-S Theatrics

Natasha Toro, Kelvin Urday
Photo by Michael Young
R-S Theatrics

“Love?Actually” is being presented by R-S Theatrics at the Westport Playhouse until September 18, 2016.

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First Lady Suite
by Michael John LaChiusa
Directed by Shualee Cook
R-S Theatrics
September 5th, 2014

Elizabeth Van Pelt Photo by Michael Young R-S Theatrics

Elizabeth Van Pelt
Photo by Michael Young
R-S Theatrics

I was looking forward to seeing this production of First Lady Suite from R-S Theatrics. Their production of Parade last year is still one of my favorite musical productions that I’ve seen in St. Louis. Presented again at the grand Ivory Theatre, this production held a lot of promise for me, but I was ultimately disappointed, although that disappointment is more the result of the material than the production itself. R-S Theatrics has assembled a great cast, and the production values are good, but alas, First Lady Suite is not the exquisitely written, important piece of theatre that is Parade.  It gives me a lot of mixed feelings, since I think it’s an interesting idea, and R-S Theatrics has shown some daring in introducing this little-known show to the St. Louis audience.  Still, I wish this excellent cast would have been given better material to perform.

I have to say that I’m something of a Presidential trivia buff. I memorized the names of all the presidents in order when I was about 10 years old, and later I memorized their wives’ names as well. Presidential trivia books and biographies were “fun reading” for me growing up, so anything about presidents and their families piques my interest, at least at first.  The problem with LaChiusa’s work, though, is that there doesn’t seem to be any real purpose for it. Is he celebrating the First Ladies, or is he ridiculing them?  Is he saying this is an important historical role, or a trivial one that people make too much of?  Taking some of the more remembered First Ladies in recent history–Jackie Kennedy, Mamie Eisenhower, Bess Truman and Eleanor Roosevelt–and presenting them in such unexpected ways sounds like a good idea, but what LaChiusa has produced just seems muddled, confusing, and occasionally needlessly disrespectful. This is historical absurdity with no obvious point, with a score that is largely tuneless and unmemorable.  There are some interesting ideas here in terms of focusing on the supporting players behind the First Ladies, but the script leaves a lot to be desired and much to wonder about.

There are four stories here, with differing degrees of fantasy and absurdity.  “Over Texas” focuses on the Kennedy staff–the First Lady’s insecure secretary Mary Gallagher (Katie Donnelly), and the President’s somewhat infatuated secretary Evelyn Lincoln (Kay Love)–as they make the fateful journey to Dallas in November, 1963. “Where’s Mamie?” takes Mamie Eisenhower (Elizabeth Van Pelt) on a fantastical odyssey from her White House bedroom to Little Rock, Arkansas and Algiers, with opera singer Marian Anderson (Jeanitta Perkins) along for the ride. “Olio” features a short singing recital by First Daughter Margaret Truman (Christina Rios), presided over by a particularly boorish version of her mother, Bess (Nathan Robert Hinds). The last and longest segment is “Eleanor Sleeps Here”, in which a bizarrely vapid and capricious Eleanor Roosevelt (Kay Love) is taken on an impromptu flight over Washington, DC by famed pilot Amelia Earhart (Belinda Quimby), sparking the jealous ramblings of Eleanor’s close friend and confidant, former news reporter Lorena “Hick” Hickok (Rachel Hanks).  Many historians believe the relationship between Hick and Eleanor was romantic, and that’s LaChiusa’s take, except the way this is written, it seems like the two have little in common and can barely stand each other. The oddest thing about these selections is that most of the First Ladies don’t come across very well–Jacqueline Kennedy (Christina Rios) is aloof and demanding, Lady Bird Johnson (Belinda Quimby) is a clueless airhead, Bess Truman  (Nathan Robert Hinds),  is portrayed as crass, boorish and insensitive; and Eleanor Roosevelt seems flighty and not particularly bright. The only First Lady who leaves a generally positive impression is Mamie Eisenhower, in a departure from the stingy and shrewish way she’s been portrayed. elsewhere. Here, she’s spunky and girlish, determined to change history and break out of the “rules” her husband (also Hinds) has set for her.  That segment is easily the most entertaining of the evening because of Van Pelt’s dynamic performance, although it’s not perfect either, since it oddly trivializes the desegregation crisis in Little Rock.

Despite the difficult script and unmemorable score, however, the cast is very strong, and the production values are impressive. Especially notable technically are Amy Harrison’s richly detailed costumes.  The performers do their best with this material, as well. In addition to the production’s stand-out, Van Pelt, there are also strong performances from Donnelly as the self-doubting Gallagher,  Hinds as Dwight Eisenhower, Hanks as Hick, Quimby as Amelia Earhart, Rios as Jackie Kennedy and Margaret Truman, Perkins as Marian Anderson, and Love as Evelyn Lincoln and (making the most of an underwritten role) Eleanor Roosevelt.  The show opens with a promising ensemble number in which various First Ladies sing about the difficulty of the job, and it closes with a similar number, and these segments are probably the best parts of the show.

It’s a frustrating experience as a reviewer and a theatre fan to see such a well-produced production of a show that I don’t particularly enjoy.  As weak and confusing as the script is, though, this cast and crew have made the most of it, making it worth seeing just for the sake of the strong performances. R-S Theatrics continues to take risks in their productions, and that’s a good thing even when the risks don’t always pay off.

Katie Donnelly, Kay Love Photo by Michael Young R-S Theatrics

Katie Donnelly, Kay Love
Photo by Michael Young
R-S Theatrics

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Mary Shelley Monster Show

by Nick Otten

Based on a Concept by Ellie Schwetye and Rachel Tibbetts

Directed by Kelley Weber

Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble

August 20, 2014

Ellie Schwetye (in silhouette), Rachel Tibbetts Photo by Joey Rumpell Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble

Ellie Schwetye (in silhouette), Rachel Tibbetts
Photo by Joey Rumpell
Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble

Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble (SATE) is closing out its year-long “Season of the Monster” with a brand new show that revolves, partly, around one of the most iconic monster stories ever.  Mary Shelley Monster Show even opens with a montage of projections of various versions of the infamous monster that’s at the heart of Shelley’s most famous work, Frankenstein. This story, though, is about much more than Frankenstein. In this innovative, technically stunning  production, SATE brings Mary Shelley and her world to life in an entertaining and thoroughly riveting manner.

The play is short but extremely contemplative, and it’s never boring.  As Mary (Rachel Tibbetts) poses for her most well-known portrait by painter Richard Rothwell (the offstage voice of Carl Overly, Jr.), she recalls the important moments of her life and the people-both real and imaginary–that inhabited it.  These characters, from the monster himself to such real-life figures as Mary’s poet husband Percy Bysshe Shelley, her mother Mary Wollstonecraft, her father William Godwin, the illustrious poet Lord Byron and others, are all played by Ellie Schwetye. Through Mary’s recollections, reenactments, and an abundance of projections, we are given a glimpse into Mary’s mind as she recalls historic moments in her life, and her various relationships with those who have been most important to her.  We also see her relationship with her work, represented by her various philosophical discussions with the shadowy figure of the monster, who gradually evolves throughout the course of the show and challenges Mary to think about her relationship, as a writer, with her creation. It’s an exploration of one woman’s life and also the lives of famous literary figures and of one work in particular and how that work has survived its creator and even eclipsed her in notoriety, reflected in the play as Mary tells the monster–who questions his reality–that a creation often becomes more “real” than its creator.

What’s real here is the sheer wonder of this production, both technically and in its performances. Tibbetts gives a reflective, confident performance as Mary, portraying her various stages of life and conflicting emotions with veracity and depth.  From her regrets over the deaths of loved ones, to her deep love and near-worship of her dynamic husband, to her verbal sparring with the charismatic Byron, Tibbetts is thoroughly affecting.  Schwetye also impresses in at least nine different roles, portraying this wide range of characters clearly with, for the most part, only minimal changes in costume.  She is particularly effective as the self-confident Byron, as the reassuring ghostly figure of Mary’s late mother, as Mary’s emotional step-sister “Claire”, and especially as the increasingly confrontational monster.  Schwetye makes the transitions between the various characters seem effortless, and the chemistry between her (in her various incarnations) and Tibbetts is excellent.  Lending support to these two dynamic actresses is Overly, who never actually appears onstage but manages to make an impression with his voice, as the painter who serves as something of a catalyst and sounding board for Mary’s reflections.

Technically, this show is nothing short of marvelous. With a striking set by David Blake, along with Bess Moynihan’s atmospheric lighting, Michael B. Perkins’s abundant and colorful projections, Elizabeth Henning’s costumes and Schwetye’s sound design, this production strikes and maintains just the right mood.  It’s haunting, reflective and educational all at the same time. This team has managed to use the somewhat limited space in the small Chapel venue to its best advantage, taking the audience on a trip into Mary Shelley’s world and into her very thoughts.  This is  great example of a show in which the technical elements add to the drama of the production rather than dominating or distracting from it. It’s  a highly commendable effort from all involved.

This is a unique and fascinating play that educates as it entertains, as well as providing a basis for thoughtful discussions on the nature of writing and of an artist’s relationship to her craft. It’s another triumph for the collective creative talents of SATE. Over the past few years, this small, unpretentious theatre company has consistently turned out some of the most exciting,intriguing productions in St. Louis. I’m constantly impressed at how much the team at SATE continues to grow and stretch their limits as a company, continually trying to challenge expectations and then rising to the challenge. It’s companies like this that help make the St. Louis theatre scene great. Mary Shelley Monster Show is the latest, and quite possibly the greatest, of SATE’s many successes.  I look forward to seeing what their next season brings.

Rachel Tibbetts, Ellie Schwetye Photo by Joey Rumpell Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble

Rachel Tibbetts, Ellie Schwetye
Photo by Joey Rumpell
Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble

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Well, the Dress Circle Benefit concert is tomorrow night, and I really wish I could attend, but true to the story of my life as an American fan of British theatre, I’m stuck on the wrong side of the ocean.  Still, I wanted to address the “charity vs. business” issue again quickly because I’m still seeing a lot of those arguments online.  This will be short, because I’ve said most of what I wanted to say on this issue already, but here goes:

A lot of people seem to be questioning why all the artists involved in this benefit are putting so much time and effort into helping out a business when they could be putting that same time into helping various charitable causes.  I already mentioned in “Save Dress Circle 2” that many of these artists already do a lot to support charities and it’s not a case of “either/or”, but I thought of an analogy that I think might explain why a lot of these artists are doing this, and why I and many other theatre fans are supporting this cause.  The bottom line for me is that it’s not about helping a business vs. helping a charity.  It’s about helping a friend.  If someone has a good friend who owns a business that is struggling, would they just say “tough luck.  That’s the way things go these days, with this economy, and you should have worked harder to save it yourself. “ I don’t think most people would do that.  They would help their friend in whatever ways they could—they would patronize their business and tell other friends about it.  They might even donate their time and/or money to help their friend find ways to keep their business afloat.  If that friend has been there for them in hard times as well as in good times, they would want to return the favor.  This, I think, is what is happening with Dress Circle.  I can’t read minds, but what I see from the words and actions of the performers, fans and others involved is that they don’t see Dress Circle as just some shop.  They see it as a friend, and they want to do whatever they can to help their friend.

What has Dress Circle done, you may ask, to have all these people want to help them like this, as if they are an old friend?  Dress Circle has supported them when they needed support, in terms of selling and promoting performers’ solo CD’s when the big chain stores wouldn’t.  They’ve also been there to hold signings to help promote West End shows as well as the individual performers.  Also, they are there as a place to go for theatre fans and creatives to meet and promote whatever is going on in the industry, from small fringe venues to the West End and everything in between.  They see Dress Circle as a place with people who understand them and will work to promote them and the industry that they love.  It’s not just about someplace to buy CDs or books.  That is an important aspect of it, but there is a lot more to it than that.  These people—artists, creatives, fans and whoever else—seem to feel that this particular shop is more than just a shop.  Dress Circle has been there for them when they needed support in their careers, and they want to return the favor.  They love Dress Circle, and see it as a friend, and they would like to see their friend stick around.

That, to my mind, is why this effort is going on.  It is not about making a business into a charity or taking away funds and/or time that can be devoted to charities.  It is about real, genuine affection for an institution that has come to be seen as a dear old friend, and these people want to help their friend.  I see nothing wrong with that, and indeed I share the sentiment.  I have been to Dress Circle, the actual shop, only twice, but I’ve long been a member of their online message board, and I have seen all the efforts they have made to support and promote theatre and individual artists. I feel like this organization has been a real friend to the theatre industry and it would be a shame to see them go under, so I support this cause.  I really wish I could attend the concert, but there has been talk of a CD of the event and if there is one, I will gladly buy it.  I send my best wishes to all who are involved in this benefit and to Dress Circle itself.  This shop has been a true friend to the theatre community, especially in London but also around the world, and I hope it stays around for a very long time.

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